It Was Twenty(-Five) Years Ago Today…
…the Banff Centre brought the world to play…with VR and art.
From May 20-22, 1994, Canada’s Banff Centre for the Arts hosted the 4th International Conference on Cyberspace, aka 4CYBERCONF. According to Wired (in April 1994), this was:
One of two important conferences on cyberspace and virtual reality, 4CYBERCONF is a prestigious annual event bringing together practitioners and theoreticians to discuss the social and cross-cultural implications of cyberspace. (Wired magazine: “Deductible Junkets”, April 1994)
Since graduating from university a year earlier, I’d worked in the Banff Centre’s Media Arts department to help create artworks that explored the intersection of leading-edge “virtual” technologies with artistic practice. I worked with eight groups of artists who’d been selected to produce artworks exploring the ideas and technology of immersion. The culmination of the two-year Art and Virtual Environments Project (described in the book Immersed in Technology (MIT Press, 1996) was the “Art and Virtual Environments Symposium”, held at the Centre immediately after the Conference on Cyberspace that year (May 23-24, 1994), during which we mounted and presented the immersive works produced with all the artists during their residencies.
Art and Virtual Environments
The “A & VE” Project (and its funding) had officially ended at the end of March, 1994, and many of us were already on to other jobs – but had written into our new employment contracts that we’d be allowed to take a few weeks in May as “vacation”, so we could head back to Banff to help setup and present the past few years’ work.
It’s a lot of work to present any immersive/interactive installation to the public in a gallery. It’s quite another thing to attempt to install and present ten pieces over a period of two days! This was a hugely ambitious (or naïvely insane?) undertaking; a whirlwind of activity involving dozens of Media Arts (current and former) employees, associates, interns, along with all the artists whose work we were presenting. In the case of us – the technical folks – it meant we weren’t able to attend most of the CYBERCONF sessions. To the academics and philosophers, we left the discussions: of the hegemony of Cartesian space; of the role of the body in cyberspace; of gender and aboriginal issues as perceived through the virtual lens. We just focused on getting our VR pieces – some “illustrative examples” of those philosophical concepts, that everyone was eager to see – ready for public presentation.
Thanks to a large Canadian government grant in the early 1990s, our department received a (roughly) half-million dollar Silicon Graphics supercomputer capable of producing real-time, stereoscopic 3D graphics. 25 years ago, such a computer was required to create the immersive visuals for VR headsets or high-resolution stereo projection. Today a normal “gaming” computer worth about $1500 can do the same (actually, it can do much better). We had one of the first SGI Onyx computers that was sold in Canada – something that’s hard to imagine in today’s art-funding context. We also had sophisticated audio technology, such as NeXT Cube computers equipped with IRCAM Signal Processing Workstation (ISPW) DSP boards, and Crystal River Engineering Convolvotrons for binaural spatialization.
The projects presented were as diverse as the artists involved. Each project featured real-time virtual environments and sound, but not all chose to use the headset display and hand interactions of “traditional VR”. The projects used various permutations of the following technologies: IrisGL (later OpenGL) and SGI Performer for graphics generation; head-mounted displays; magnetic (Polhemus), ultrasonic and multi-camera tracking of bodies and objects in 3D space; the University of Alberta’s “Minimal Reality Toolkit” for VR tracker and device management; stereoscopic and large-screen projection; prerecorded LaserDisc content programmatically triggered and mixed with real-time graphics; binaural audio; a VPL DataGlove for hand interaction; novel user interfaces (such as a “surfing platform” or pinchable “grippees”); real-time voice recognition and processing; digital mixers, audio synthesizers and samplers. And lots of custom software, written mostly in C, but also in Max (then from Opcode; now from Cycling ‘74) and other languages.
The Jeanne and Peter Lougheed Building (our own high-tech “JPL”) was wired with kilometres of video, audio, ethernet, serial, MIDI and optical cables, carrying signals between various machine rooms and various project studios on different floors. The performances and public presentations of the VR works were “run” in a distributed fashion by operators in different rooms – often we had to communicate by “low tech” walkie-talkies to coordinate starting/stopping pieces at the right times. (I think the expression “Start ‘er up?” will always have a special meaning to the people involved.)
The projects presented included:
Placeholder by Brenda Laurel and Rachel Strickland. This piece was one of the most ambitious ones we attempted. It featured two immersants in the same virtual space, taking on the persona of “spirit creatures”, interacting (vocally) with a “goddess” figure and each other; leaving “voiceprints” (recordings, like audio graffiti) embedded in rocks in the virtual space; hand position and grip tracking; interactions such as “flapping the wings to fly like a bird”. It was very playful and social, a kind of performance/theatre that involved so many “moving parts” and people that it would be almost impossible to mount again.
Archaeology of a Mother Tongue by Toni Dove and Michael Mackenzie. Due to its length (over half an hour), it was impractical to present this individually, so it was mounted at the Symposium as a scheduled “show”, with the imagery projected on a large screen while an “expert user” (me) was immersed in the virtual space and wearing a DataGlove. Why me? Because I was the person who was most familiar with it and could “navigate it” effectively, from having coded so intimately on it. I remember Rafael was at one of the presentations, and him commenting – in the discussion that followed one performance – how compelling it was to see the “genuine struggle” as I tried, and often failed for an uncomfortably long period of time, to “activate” various objects (such as a virtual violin or skull). These moments of reaching out to grasp objects with the DataGlove were branching points, where the story could follow different paths. Of course, this tension (and the sweat on the back of my neck) was very real – mainly caused by the difficult “picking” interface we’d programmed…
Bar Code Hotel by Perry Hoberman. This piece used large-screen stereoscopic projection, and its interface consisted of off-the-shelf bar code scanners. The public could create and manipulate objects by scanning bar codes (printed on all the surfaces of the exhibition space). This simple interaction with those mundane, ubiquitous black and white bar codes in the real world triggered lively, colourful objects in the virtual space. They could perform interesting behaviours (such as “follow”, “avoid” and “wallflower”) and produce engaging, spatialized sound. This often resulted in playful interactions among people in the gallery (of course, it helped that not everyone was trapped in a VR bubble ;-). I travelled to install (and maintain/update) this work several times in the following years, including at festivals such as Ars Electronica (June 1994), the Interactive Media Festival (June 1995), Dutch Electronic Arts Festival (November 1995) and Perry’s retrospective show, “Unexpected Obstacles”, at Otso Gallery (September 1997). It was later acquired by ZKM.
Objects of Ritual by Will Bauer and Steven Gibson. This was a theatrical performance piece, very music- and audio-centric, where four members of the public would take part in a ritual experience together. It featured Will Bauer’s “Gesture and Media System” (GAMS) for ultrasound tracking of the immersant/performers’ positions.
Dancing with the Virtual Dervish: Virtual Bodies by Diane Gromala and Yacov Sharir. This was a mix of immersive virtual experience (in the HMD), video projection and a dancer (Sharir) performing live.
Dancing with the Virtual Dervish: Worlds in Progress by Marcos Novak. An alternate take on the “virtual dervish”, that started as one, but bifurcated into two distinct projects.
VR on $5 a Day by Ron Kuivila. This work satirized/critiqued the hype around VR (and its possible future). I remember it featured phoney commercial interruptions for things like “Intelligence Mining” (farm out real-world problems to be solved by game players), customized food supplements based on your own DNA, or personalized financial instruments… A quarter-century later, and Ron’s “jokes” don’t sound quite so outlandish.
Topological Slide by Michael Scroggins and Stewart Dickson. This one featured a custom tilting platform, that allowed immersants to “surf” along colourful high-dimensional mathematical surfaces.
Two other landmark projects were shown at the Symposium, although I wasn’t involved in their creation (I’d started at Banff after Michael and Lawrence Paul had completed their residencies):
Field Recording Studies by Michael Naimark.
Inherent Rights, Vision Rights by Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun. This was one of the first immersive (“VR”) artworks created, and was the first one to be exhibited at Canada’s National Gallery (a couple of years earlier, in 1992). Interestingly, Lawrence Paul has recently (2019) completed a second immersion into VR, with Unceded Territories.
CYBERCONF continued (in different venues around the world) for a few more years, along with that “first wave” of VR hype. (It seems 1998 was the final edition of the conference, in Budapest.) It’s difficult to dig up information about those days; it’s such a long time ago (especially in “Internet years”). And I’m discovering the (wetware, aka grey matter) memory isn’t what it used to be. I tried to find the poster for our conference, but couldn’t locate it online. I’m sure I must have an original in a box somewhere …but… which box? Thanks to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine I was able to find at least one attendee’s notes and observations about the conference.
I was practically “just a kid”, recently graduated, but during my short time in Banff (1993-94) I was embraced by a surrogate family of new colleagues and friends. It was a privilege to be exposed to and work with as many different artists as I did, in such a short period of time. It was eye-opening, mind-expanding, and humbling to be brought onboard and accepted not as “mere” programmer or technician, but as a valued partner and collaborator in each project. We were often under huge time pressure and stress, but the personal relationships, love and humour are what made it work. (Living – and hiking, cycling and skiing – in the natural paradise of Banff’s Rocky Mountains probably didn’t hurt, either.)
I know it’s an “old timer thing” to be jaded and tend to think there’s nothing new under the sun; that “we did it all before”… But even “old timers” have to admit that the display, computing and real-time graphics hardware for VR have made huge leaps in the past quarter-century. It is immeasurably less expensive and more accessible – and now, not only to artists at centres with hefty grants! In addition, there is a plethora of tools, game engines and other resources – often open source – for modern artists and developers to explore. So, sure, there are some interesting projects happening in this “second wave” (or is it third; or is it fourth?) of VR. But in the midst of all that, just try to remember that there were also some interesting things being done…way back in the last century.
UPDATE (May 22): Thanks to all the people who were at CYBERCONF and the A&VE Symposium in ‘94, who’ve gotten in touch or responded to my messages…it’s been great to be back in touch with so many of you!